BEIRUT – Syrians who remained loyal to President Bashar Assad throughout the past eight years of war are increasingly expressing discontent with his government as living standards in Syria continue to deteriorate even as the conflict winds down.
Conditions are dire for most of the 19 million Syrians living across the ravaged country, including in the roughly one-third of the country that remains outside government control. Whole towns and villages have been depopulated and destroyed and an estimated 89 percent of the population is living in poverty, dependent on international food handouts, according to the United Nations.
But for the first time, those living in the pro-government areas that were spared the worst of the violence are experiencing some of the harshest deprivations, including in the capital Damascus.
No recovery in sight
Residents there say life has become more difficult in recent months than at any point in the past eight years, bringing a realization that there will be no swift recovery from the immense damage inflicted by the war on Syria's economy, social fabric and standing in the international community.
Until the last of the rebellious Damascus suburbs were reconquered last year, shells fired from rebel-held territory were regularly exploding in the streets of the capital, sustaining a mood of fear and uncertainty.
The conquest of the Eastern Ghouta suburb last year ended the rocket fire, but it has not brought the respite residents were hoping for, said a Damascus-based writer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "This is the worst we have ever known," he said. "People can barely survive and the percentage of poor is increasing all the time."
Acute shortages of fuel, cooking gas and electricity have left citizens shivering in darkness through an unusually cold winter. The Syrian currency, which had plunged then stabilized after the war broke out, is sliding again, sending prices soaring.
Many thousands of men who fought on the front lines for years are returning home without hope of finding jobs. The wartime economy has fueled corruption on an unprecedented scale, compounding the daily challenge of queuing for long hours to secure basic necessities with the indignity of having to pay multiple bribes to layers of officialdom, according to Damascus residents.
Widespread expectations, encouraged by the government — that wealthy Arab investors would flock back to Damascus, Chinese funding for reconstruction projects would flow and U.S. sanctions would be relaxed — have been disappointed and don't seem likely to be fulfilled soon.
The cafes and bars of Damascus are packed at night, creating the impression of a city on the path to recovery. But the revelers represent a tiny elite that has profited from the war, and their conspicuous consumption only fuels the resentment of the vast majority of people for whom life is a daily struggle to survive, the residents say.
"What is being touted as a big military victory has not translated into the improvement of quality of life that was expected," said Danny Makki, a British-Syrian analyst and journalist living in Damascus. "You've got 3 to 4 percent of people with the vast majority of the wealth and for the rest life is just a struggle."
"It's such a depressing mood, and it's been such a harsh winter," he added. "Even when we had militant groups on the doorstep of Damascus, we never had such big issues from the quality-of-life perspective."
The unhappiness is reflected in an unprecedented torrent of complaints on social media by Assad loyalists, including some of the celebrities and TV personalities who have used their stature in the past to rally support for his regime.
"We won, but there is no meaning to victory if we no longer have the homeland we knew," wrote Ayman Zedan, a prominent actor, in a Facebook post, reflecting the sense of disappointment that Assad's military victory over his opponents has brought no respite for his supporters.
"We are tired of promises and pledges on the TVs and radios," complained Shoukran Mortaja, a renowned actress, in a posting on her page addressed to "Mr President."
"Are we really going to let those who didn't die in the war die from misery, cold and inflated prices?" she asked.
Scores of people among her 54,000 followers expressed support in comments on the post, which was shared more than 2,000 times. "I am certain that your message will reach the president. We are with you and we add our voices to yours," said one of them.
Assad has apparently heard the complaints. In a February speech in Damascus, he was unusually defensive, acknowledging that some people are genuinely suffering and that corruption among local officials has contributed to the hardships people endure.
But he shrugged off responsibility, accusing expatriate Syrians of leveling the strongest criticisms and attributing the shortages of vital products to U.S. sanctions.
Economists and Western diplomats say new sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury in November were indeed the most likely cause of the unexpectedly severe energy shortages in recent months.
The impact on ordinary people of limited U.S. and European sanctions imposed in the earliest days of the war against individuals associated with the Assad regime has been minimal, said Jihad Yazigi, editor of Syria Report, a newsletter focused on business and economics.
Apart from one brief period two years ago when fuel and gas supplies ran short because of a dispute between the government and Iran, Syria's major supplier, most products have been widely available in government-held areas throughout the conflict, he said.
However, the latest Treasury sanctions targeted the shipping companies that deliver fuel and gas to Syria, abruptly deterring them from continuing to do so for fear of jeopardizing their business elsewhere, he said.
Most Syrians nonetheless place blame squarely on their government for the shortages, according to residents, reflecting the depth of the despair.
"People don't blame America, or at least they don't put primary responsibility on America. The biggest blame they place is on the government," said the Damascus writer. "They know the government is incapable and corrupt."
Assad is spared
Assad himself remains off limits to the criticism. The generally expressed view, the writer said, is that Assad is not involved in the day-to-day running of the country and that corrupt, inept officials and local warlords empowered by the conflict are responsible for any failures.
Reflecting that attitude, the actress included a direct appeal to Assad. "I am sending you this message because you are the only one who will listen and promise us, and then keep your promise," she wrote. "We are all with the homeland, but we don't want the homeland to be against us."
No one expects another revolt against Assad for now, at least in loyalist areas, the Syrians say. The 2011 protests, in which millions of people took to the streets to call for Assad to step down, ignited a war that cost the lives of as many as half a million people, prompted the flight of more than 6 million refugees and inflicted as much as $388 billion worth of damage on the economy and infrastructure, according to the United Nations.
"That's the last thing people want. People have lost their will to care," said the Damascus writer.